Welcome to Beyond the Blue Domes, my personal blog. In earlier posts, I shared memories about growing up in Iran during the Shah's rule, fleeing the country at age thirty, raising a family in the United States, and facing the newness and challenges of American life. Lately I'm posting my thoughts on stories or news that have touched me. My theme is exploring social realities and the intersections within cultures, and preserving history. Thanks for stopping by.
My love affair with Armenia... It began when I stepped into the old Zvartnotz Airport in Yerevan. My husband and I were traveling with a group from California. For most of us, it was our first visit to Armenia.
After a layover in Paris, we boarded an Armenian airline to Yerevan. The flight attendants, young Armenian women with over-sized figures, had white outfits which added to their size. They all also wore heavy makeup – a hallmark of Yerevan.
The flight was scary. The airplane seemed in disarray, with loose seats and water dripping from the sides. However, we were impressed that Armenia had an airline.
The year was 2001. Ten years earlier, in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia had gained its independence.
On one hand, the bruised and battered country was adjusting to the separation from the former Soviet Union and trying to find the road to recovery. On the other hand, the country was slowly emerging from the dark years of not having electricity and water because of the six-year war (1990-96) with Azerbaijan. The war had taken thousands of lives, consumed the vitality of the country and put Armenia in a distressed situation.
I grew up in Iran with a sense of "Garod" - a nostalgic feeling towards Armenia. (There is no exact translation in English for the word "Garod.") Armenia was a forbidden destination because it was one of the Republics of the Soviet Union.
It was not until the '80s when the Iron Curtain was slowly pulling back and the doors to the Soviet Republics were opening. We Armenians could visit our homeland, and we could experience what our literature and the verses of our poets had praised about its beauty.
Everyone in our group, including myself, was so excited that we had finally arrived in our ancestral homeland, a place that belonged to us but which we had never set foot in.
It was late evening when we arrived in Yerevan. The dimly-lit airport looked deserted. Like Soviet-era government buildings in movie scenes, it was cold, unimpressive and outdated. The interior walls with pink and grayish marble looked very tired and gave us an inkling of what to expect entering Yerevan.
After a woman officer stamped our passports, my husband asked to take a picture with her. To my surprise she accepted and got up from her chair came out of the cabin to take a picture. I still cannot believe that a governmental officer was willing to have such a photo taken. The snapshot shows my teary eyes and how I'm holding back my emotions. Sometimes I wonder if there is another people with so much deep feeling towards their motherland.
We arrived at Hotel Ani, just before midnight. The hotel was totally refurbished and tastefully decorated with Armenian-themed furnishings and interior design. The spacious lobby and the elongated check-in granite counter put us in awe. I had not expected to see a swanky hotel.
After we got situated in our rooms, our tour director told us we could have a sandwich at the café next door. The street was again dimly lit, but it didn't prevent us from noticing the extremely wide sidewalk. It was another jaw-dropping experience. I could not believe how wide the sidewalk was. Besides the "Champs Élysée," boulevard in Paris, I had not seen such wide sidewalks anywhere else.
The following morning, our first day in Yerevan started with a visit to the Genocide Museum. It was a heart-wrenching experience to view the exhibition of the tragic pages of our history. From there, our tour bus took us to Victory Park to see the imposing 51-meter statue of Mother Armenia, a commanding upright figure of a woman symbolizing the powerful Armenian woman by holding a heavy sword at her waist.
On the way back from Victory Park, we were ushered to the manuscript museum which is one of the richest depositories of ancient manuscripts and old books in the world.
Visiting all those monuments and museums, and traveling through the streets of Yerevan and seeing the multitude of stylish buildings – although in dilapidated condition – put me in awe. The wide sidewalks and public art throughout the city were incredible. It was hard to believe that all these architectural gems in Yerevan were built during Soviet times.
Growing up, all I had heard was anti-Soviet propaganda and how our homeland Armenia had suffered under communism. But now in Yerevan things were different from what I had expected.
It seems there was a gap in my education. I was not aware that under Soviet rule, Yerevan was reconstructed with an urban plan very close to European cities like Paris or Vienna.
After two weeks of traveling in Armenia, we returned home charmed by all the beautiful sites we had visited in Yerevan and throughout Armenia. I decided on a whim: "Given a choice, Armenia is where I'm going to retire."
Yes, Armenia got under my skin. I was hit by the "love-bug." As Frank Sinatra left his heart in San Francisco, I left mine in Yerevan.
My grandmother refused to eat grapes each year until the day grapes were blessed at the church by the priest. Each year, on the Sunday closest to the date of August 15, the Armenian Church, all over the world, celebrates the Blessing of the Grapes. The feast predates Christianity, and has its roots in pagan times. Originally, it was a traditional homage to the gods. Today, the blessing of the grapes has become a religious ceremony dedicated to the Virgin Mary. When I was growing up, there was a kind of red grapes in Iran that were small, bead-like and had dense clusters. They were the most delicious grapes you'll ever eat. They are called "Yaghouty" meaning "ruby-like." The Yaghouty grapes come early in summer, and they're gone before the blessing of the grapes. When I was young, I was so sad that grandma had never tasted Yaghouty grapes. I remember I would insist that she try just one small piece, but she would refuse. She had other rules, too. For instance, she would not touch a needle to sew anything after sunset on Saturdays until Monday morning. She was very strict in complying with her rules. Sometimes I wonder why I didn't take after her and make rules of my own. Instead, I raised my kids with a "lassez-faire" attitude. I'm not sure whether I was right or wrong. I was surprised recently to learn that my friend Sona, with whom I was traveling in Armenia, had this practice in common with my grandma. She also refused to eat grapes until they were blessed. We decided make it special for Sona to break the fast while we were in Armenia. We looked around and came upon a church not too far from Yerevan, built in 1212 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Coincidentally, on the day of the Blessing of the Grapes, the church was going to celebrate its 800 years of existence. We did a little more research, and learned that the church was located not too far from a village named "Aghtsk," where a yoga retreat had recently been established. What? A yoga retreat at a village in Armenia was the last thing I would have imagined. We decided to stay at the retreat for a week, and on Sunday, St. Mary's Day, visit the church and attend the mass for the blessing of the grapes.
the yoga retreat pictured from outside
The retreat was a labor of love completed by Al Eisaian and his wife from Glendale, California. I asked Eisaian about his purpose in establishing it. He told me that, as many Armenians living outside of Armenia have adopted the country and contributed to its development, they too wanted in their own way bestow a gift to the Armenian homeland by building a yoga retreat. They bought an existing home on the top of a hill in the village, added a few more rooms, and very tastefully remodeled the whole building inside and out. They kept the indigenous color of red on the outside walls and added a generous wrap-around terraced balcony. It won't be an exaggeration if I say the building, especially the bathrooms, look like they have sprung out of the pages of Architectural Digest. It took them six years to complete the renovations to the building, and it happened that Sona and I were their first official guests!
interior of the Yoga retreat
We stayed there for a week. At the village, we learned that pilgrimage to the church, on St. Mary's Day, is a well-kept tradition. Nouneh, the assistant director at the retreat, had a hard time finding a car that on Sunday could take us to the church. Everybody wanted to take their own families that. Finally, after many inquiries, Nouneh was able to arrange for a local man to drive us up to the church. The road was winding and it took about 20 minutes to reach there. As we got close to the church, we noticed colorful umbrellas that vendors had set along the path. There was a huge crowd, and police was monitoring the traffic. We arrived at the church before noon. the mass had not yet concluded, and the grapes were not yet blessed. Usually, old Armenian churches are constructed in two parts. First you enter an anteroom which is a large hall with many pillars, and from there you enter a smaller room where the altar is and where the mass is conducted. We bought candles and lit them in the anteroom.
At the altar, the priest and the deacons in their colorful and decorated silky robes were conducting a beautiful mass. Sona could sing along with the choir. I envied her because she knew all the words by heart. Fresh flowers were placed at the foot of the altar, and when the mass was over they brought grapes in plastic grocery bags and they made room for grapes by rearranging the flowers. There, we met Mykael Mykaelian, who introduced himself as the Godfather of the church. Every year, someone is selected as the Godfather. He invited us to his home in Yerevan for an offering of "madagh," which is a meal prepared from the meat of a sacrificed animal. Invitations like this are common in Armenia but we declined his offer because we had other plans. "Madagh" is a mercy offering intended for the poor and needy, but it has turned into the food served on St. Mary's Day. The tradition of sacrificing an animal can be traced back to the Old Testament and the book of Genesis. Four years ago, on the day of St. Mary’s feast in 2008, I was in the city of Nice in France. The Armenian church there was celebrating its 80th anniversary and the "blessing of the grapes." They, too, provided free meals to the crowd from their morning sacrifice of the lambs. Celebrating the Blessing of the Grapes at an old monastery church was a memorable experience for Sona and I. We tasted another tradition of a country steeped in history. On the way up to the church and down, there were numerous cars stalled with their hoods up, a testament of the poor conditions our people live in. The driver charged us 12,000 Dram, about $30, to take us up to the church and back to Yerevan. It was totally worth it.
The following is my reflections over the presidential election of Barack Obama four years ago, on 2008.
Pray with me… Something’s got to change…Change
is a stone throw away… (words from a song composed by Farshid Amin, an
when CNN at 8 p.m., after closing off voting booths in California, on election
night of 2008, announced Barack Obama as the next president of the United
States. Everything happened so quickly, I definitely was not
expecting such an easy victory. I was numb and it took me some time
to realize the magnitude of what had just happened. I will admit,
that back in January and up until Hillary was beaten by Obama I was thinking
that Obama should step aside and make the path easier for
Hillary. For which my son refuted me and tried to educate me on the
virtues of Obama, and his run for the presidency. Now I realize how
wrong I was…
On Tuesday November
4th we gathered as a family to watch the results of the presidential
election on TV. The atmosphere was very intense. My
daughter’s phone was receiving ongoing text messages from her friends, first
anticipating then congratulating Obama’s win in blue states. My son
Erik, the youngest in the family, was hired in Ohio for the campaign
efforts. His participation in electing Obama as President, made us
feel that we were part of the process and the continuous buzz coming from my
daughter’s cell phone summed up the excitement that consumed the family that
night. Between the phone calls and making sense of watching the
numbers appearing on the screen, my mind wandered to an incident that occurred
30 years ago.
It is the summer of 1978. We are
visiting New York City. I am at a shoe store on 5th Ave trying
shoes. There is a row of chairs, and my daughter – age four – is
sitting on a chair, next to a black girl, same age, whose mother is trying
shoes as well. The black girl has a Barbie doll in her hand
and wants to make friends with my daughter; but my daughter not knowing how to
speak English, cannot communicate with her and she's just staring at her
without making an effort to respond to the little girl’s friendly
approach. Finally, the girl turns back to me and earnestly asks me,
“She don’t wanna play with me, because I am black?” My heart sinks…
how paramount must have the race tensions been with blacks and whites thirty
years ago that a 4-year-old, in her little mind, would associate my daughter’s
none responsiveness to the color of her skin.The little girl with Her minuscule braids, secured with
colorful barrettes, that was in fashion in those days, didn’t know how fortunate she was to
have been born in a different era than her mother.Although it was 15 years after the segregation, the little
girl’s consciousness, at a young age was still tarnished with the harsh reality
of racism in America. Today, 44 years passed the segregation we have chosen a
Yes, Obama, as he
mentioned in his post Iowa victory speech emerged from obscurity by standing on
the shoulders of his ancestors, and was greeted at Chicago’s Grant Park by an
estimated 200,000 followers who stood shoulder to shoulder to listen to his presidential
victory speech. He had the audacity of planting the seeds of hope. Watching
the sea of crowd waving their little flags and welcoming the new President
elect was nothing short of awe inspiring. Of all the wonderful
images from the victory rally, which will always stay with me, two moved me the
most. One was when the camera caught Rev. Jesse Jackson with tears
welling down his face and then seeing Oprah crying by leaning on a friend’s
If America can
elect an African-American President then there is no reason why religious,
political or socioeconomic conflicts around the world cannot be solved
I'd like to finish this vignette by excerpts from a poem by Mattie Stepanek who in his young life learned that in any difficult situation, there is light and hope and if we integrate life’s lessons, we can build a good future for the whole world.
Growth brings change…
…It is essential that we cope
With the realities of the past
And the uncertainties of the future
With a pure and chosen hope.
Not a blind faith,
But a strengthened choice.
Then, we can have the
Fortitude and Wisdom necessary
To intergrate life's many lessons
That collect beyond points in time.
Growing like this will help
Build a good future,
And for the World.
Written by: Mattie J.T. Stepanek 2/18/00 age 10 - From: "Hope Through Heartsongs"
He died at age 14 on June 2004, from Muscular Dystrophy.